How ‘progressive’ can a district attorney actually be?

Like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Rachael Rollins in Boston, and Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, Manhattan’s new District Attorney Alvin Bragg was elected after campaigning to bring a more progressive approach to the criminal justice system; he also pledged to reduce the population of people held pre-trial on the infamous Rikers Island jail complex. After two months in office, however, supporters are worried that Bragg’s progressive messaging is already giving way to the same brutal system they elected him to change. TRNN Executive Producer Eddie Conway speaks with Olayemi Olurin about Bragg’s first months in office, the ongoing crisis at Rikers, and how “progressive” a District Attorney can be in a broken system designed to protect the wealthy and criminalize the poor.

Olayemi Olurin is a public defender and staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society and an analyst at the Law & Crime Network.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

Eddie Conway:     Welcome to this episode of Rattling The Bars. Recently in several states, so-called progressive DAs have been elected. Pennsylvania, in Maryland, in California, and the latest one is in New York, Manhattan’s district attorney. There’s been a lot of controversy around his policies. So joining me today is Olayemi Olurin, public defender from Brooklyn, to tell us what’s going on in New York. Olayemi, thanks for joining me.

Olayemi Olurin: Thank you for having me.

Eddie Conway:  Okay. As you can tell, my voice is a little hoarse, but can you start off by telling me a little about his campaign? Because I’m sure you looked at it and listened to it, and it seems like it’s changed considerably after pressure. So just talk about what he’s said he was going to do first.

Olayemi Olurin: All right. So Alvin Braggs is a career prosecutor who ran a campaign as a touted progressive prosecutor. He wasn’t the only one in the race but eventually he was one of the only surviving ones, and several of the people who ended up dropping out of the race did go on to endorse him, some of the more progressive candidates. So Braggs has actually maintained that he intended to continue prosecuting and being just as serious as it pertains to violent crime. It was never his platform that violent crime would not receive bail or incarceration, or he wouldn’t prosecute them. He has pretty much similar intentions through and through about violent crime as his predecessor Cy Vance. But when it came to lower misdemeanors, nonviolent crimes, and a lot of the same crimes that the Bronx DA, the Brooklyn DA have already decided not to prosecute and go forward, as well as the Manhattan DA himself, he intended not to seek bail or incarceration on those crimes like misdemeanors, low-level petty offenses, nonviolent crimes excluding…

He did make caveats for excluding things like stalking, or domestic violence, or anything in the sexual assault realm. He pretty much intended to maintain some of the Manhattan DA before him, Cy Vance’s intentions not to prosecute things like prostitution, traffic offenses, and lower-level crimes, but very much so intended to continuing prosecuting and incarcerating and seeking bail on violent offenses.

Eddie Conway:   Well, what’s all the criticism about if his policy is pretty much the same as other policies were? I noticed just an outcry from the police, an outcry from a lot of other areas. What’s this criticism about?

Olayemi Olurin:     So it has… Honestly, it has nothing to do with Alvin Braggs. There has been a constant war on bail reform before it even took effect, and afterwards. Nonetheless, bail reform since then and now, over 98% of people arrested on felony offenses that have been released on bail have not been rearrested for violent felony offenses. Over 80% of people that have been arrested, period, have not been rearrested since bail reform was enacted. Alvin Braggs, the amount of people that have been being sent to jail, sent to Rikers post Alvin Braggs taking office is pretty much the exact same as Cy Vance.

So, he’s not this radical leftist prosecutor that they’re making him out to be. Instead, what you’re seeing is a continuation of all the other fear mongering that’s been happening to roll back bail reform, and they’re just imputing it to Alvin Braggs, but he has nothing to do with it. They’ve been making the gun crimes and all of the issues about them. Highlighting guns is a serious problem in New York City. They’ve been trying to put that on Alvin Braggs, but gun offenses are very much still being prosecuted by every borough. Bail will be sought on them. They’re considered violent felony offenses, and Alvin Braggs has never stated any position to handle those any differently.

But what’s happened now is because he’s getting so much criticism because they’re trying to attack bail reform and they’re just using him to do it. Instead, even the low-level, moderate policies he intended to follow, not seeking incarceration on nonviolent offenses. He is instead… We see rollback happening, to be fair, because he doesn’t like the criticism. But in actuality, he hasn’t been doing things much differently than the Manhattan DA, and bail reform has nothing to do with the things they’re talking about. Bail reform has nothing to do with whether or not gun crime is happening or whether or not those things are going to be prosecuted, violent robberies, guns, anything like that, they’re still… In fact, it’s not even really up to the DA. Those things have statutory minimums, where they’re required to go to seek incarceration on it. A lot of what they’re holding him responsible for in the media he has no say in and he’s not doing anything differently there.

Eddie Conway:       Well, I noticed, it seemed to me that his policies are starting to get a little more conservative, a little more harsh, after the criticism. He’s looking at shoplifting and other low-level stuff that he was going to ignore and saying that now there might be some consequences. Can you talk about that for a minute?

Olayemi Olurin:     Yeah. That has been what’s happening. With the increasing media attacks on him as painting him out to be this radical progressive prosecutor, that – Let’s be honest. I wish he were, but he is not. He’s got so much criticism from that, that even the moderate policies that, again, the other boroughs have already had in place and are already doing, he is thinking about and rolling back on those. That’s why we’re seeing him with the exact same amount of incarceration rate as Cy Vance.

So, it depends on how you look at this. If you’re looking at this from the right, he’s in fact not this conservative, radical prosecutor that they’re making him out to be. If that’s a reason to like him, then that’s a reason they should. If you’re looking at it from the left, he’s not this radical leftist prosecutor. He’s pretty much firmly in the middle. He’s pretty much… He was always, always offering a moderate road to things, but now he’s going even more towards the right.

And that’s a dangerous game to get in, because not only does it not impact at all decreasing crime or changing any of the issues that we’re going to see discussed in the media, he’s never going to get the right over to his side. They’re going to still continue to attack him and police this way because they’ve always had a problem with bail reform and fear mongering about it is how they go about accomplishing that in the media with people who don’t know that bail reform has nothing to do with how these cases are being incarcerated. It has nothing to do with the fact that crime rates are what they were. It has nothing to do with the fact that the Rikers population has maintained. Then he’s going to alienate the left, and so he’s going to find himself in probably the place people like de Blasio found themselves in, where they have no allies on either side.

Eddie Conway:    So you’re saying this whole story, it’s like a false flag story. In fact, there is no progressive DA at this point in Manhattan.

Olayemi Olurin:     No, not truly, not truly. If your idea of progressive is they’re going to not seek on nonviolent offenses or not be as incarceration crazy as maybe a place like Staten Island might be, if that’s your version of progressive, then yes. But the only thing I can say for him adamantly is he’s certainly not a radical. He’s not a radical that’s just releasing people or allowing violent offenses to go unpunished or unchecked. He’s very much still seeking bail on all violent felony offenses. Violent offenses have always been his position that he would seek bail on those, and those would be being prosecuted regardless just based on the statutes themselves. So all of that, that’s being painted against him in the media, not so.

The rise, if there’s a rise in crime or gun violence or anything, we need to ask why we have 36,000 police officers that got a $200 million increase to their $11.3 billion budget and things, apparently, are getting worse. So if the strategy that’s been chosen by the people to continue giving police more money and hiring more police isn’t effective, then we need to ask what will be, and it’s probably not more incarceration. Because again, I remind you the bail numbers, people being rearrested and being sentenced to bail have not changed. 98% of people are still not being rearrested because they’re not going out and committing new offenses, and 80% of people, as far as all misdemeanors, felonies altogether. So I think we have to look at this more as a narrative that’s been driven up by critics of bail reform.

Eddie Conway:     Well, if money, and more police, and bigger jails is not the solution, what do you suggest is the solution?

Olayemi Olurin:      I think the reality is this. Over 90% of the people incarcerated at Rikers are Black or Brown, over 90%, and they’re all poor. That’s how come they can’t afford bail. That’s why they’re there. Rikers is a pretrial detention center. So if you continuously are arresting the poor, you’re arresting from particular communities, and in a pandemic where people have lost their jobs, we see a housing crisis, and now we see crime continue to rise despite the fact that you are giving police more money, probably the only logical conclusion is the poor people you’re arresting need more money. So I would say, instead of putting that money into locking them up and creating all this fear mongering that does nothing to change crime, if you’re really concerned about crime you should help the people that are the ones most experiencing the crime and suffering in these communities.

Eddie Conway:    Well, follow up. Help them how?

Olayemi Olurin:     Well, instead, there are a whole conglomerate of people that need mental health resources, but we are often put in a bind there because the court will still arrest them, send them to Rikers, we can’t get them the help that they need. So I would say put more money into the mental health resources for people, especially the homeless, because that is a large percentage of who they lock up. If we put more money into housing, we would have less people in Rikers, because that’s often a thing. A lot of the people being trafficked in and out of the criminal system are, in fact, homeless people and people with known mental health problems, but we’re not in the position as the defense to truly give them the resources they need. The prosecutors, if they’re even interested in giving them those resources, it’s at the threat of criminal conviction and continued arrest, or having to be locked up in Rikers just to get a mental health evaluation.

So I say on the front end of things, rather than a response, I think too often justice is a conversation about a response to injustice. In the first place, let’s start putting money into those communities. Put it into mental health resources. Put it into housing and shelter, which is a huge problem in New York City. Put it into the schools. I would say that. And listen to community leaders because every single one of these boroughs have organizations, nonprofits, people that are speaking up. They have their community involvement, and they’re telling you what they need and where they need the resources. Instead, it’s just being put in the NYPD’s pockets. So, I’d say there.

Eddie Conway:    You know, other communities have identified what they call potentially nonviolent… I mean, violent shooters is what they call them. They have been working to give those people a job, stipend to help bring peace to the community. They tried it up in Richmond. The violence went down. They’re trying it, I believe, in Chicago. Is that a way to go? Because I’m sure, beyond the mental health, there’s turf wars over drugs, there’s just violence over frustration, transferred violence, aggression, et cetera. How do you deal with those people?

Olayemi Olurin:  Well, I think honestly, when we address these different issues that are happening in the community when I talk to my clients a lot, people are more likely to react poorly in situations, or to resort to violence, or to resort to drugs, or doing crime when they feel like they have no choice or when they’re mad about how a system has treated them. A lot of that is that. I’ve had clients where other lawyers have had a hard time dealing with them. They’re so mad. They’re so this. I’ll sit down and I’ll go, why? Why are you mad? You know what I mean? We talk about the actual reasons and what’s going on and stuff, and you find a lot of validity there.

I think the first thing we need to do is talk to people instead of… A lot of the system, even the people that are arrested and hauled into the system, it’s never talking to them. It’s talking at them. It’s judging them. It’s criticizing them, but no one ever asks why. So much of the system requires them never to…. You can’t even admit to what you did, if you did anything at all, because you’re looking at a disproportionate punishment.

But if we had a system where we talked to people about, why did this happen, what are you going through, what do you need, I feel like we would get a different response. That’s why we are seeing different responses in places that take that approach of identifying people, and who has issues, and what they might need, and talking to them like that. I think the first thing you need to do is carve out communities. The same way they carve out communities where they know they’re going to line police on the street, carve them out as these are the people that we need to go talk to, or these are who we need to go have community meetings with, and we need to figure out exactly from them – Because they will tell you exactly what it is they need – How they ended up in these positions.

Every client, every person I ever represent in the criminal system, this is not their first brush with the system or a first brush within justice of some kind. That usually started way, way before they get to me. I think it starts there. It starts there with recognizing, let’s talk to these people, let’s figure this out, and let’s give the community what they need. Then, maybe there’s a conversation about punishment and all these things. But, if you never give people the resources they need, when they act out, when they commit crime, what did you expect to happen? When you punish them, what do you expect to happen with the rage they already felt, the abandonment they already felt about the criminal system? Yeah, they’re more likely to go and do something violent or react poorly to their problems.

I always tell people I’m far more inclined to pop somebody in the face if my bills are due, I don’t have any money for bills, my resources are low. Then I’m going to react to things differently. I’m under a different level of psychological stress and emotional stressors. I think it starts with, instead of carving out communities and calling them high crime areas and putting police all in front of there, carve out those same communities and give them the resources. Talk to them. Have community meetings.

They can do it. They have no problem issuing press releases, press conferences to come into people’s communities and call them criminals and jail them and do that. The same way you do that and put those resources into incarcerating them, put those resources into talking to them, listening to them, answering their frustrations, and giving them those solutions first. If you first try those solutions and those don’t work, then we could talk about your world of incarceration, but you’ve never tried it. You’ve never tried it, so let’s start there with giving them what they need, and then we could talk about punishing people. But, you can’t punish people you didn’t help in the first place.

Eddie Conway:    Okay. Let’s bounce back for a minute, because I’m under the impression there might not be anything [such] as a progressive DA. I look at the guy in Philadelphia and he was supposed to help Mumia and reneged on it. I looked at the guy that’s out in California… Or here in Maryland, our progressive DA, Marilyn Mosby, is probably on her way to the feds. Is progressive DAs the way in which to maybe attempt to lower the amount of people in the prison-industrial complex, or is that just a myth?

Olayemi Olurin:    I mean, I think inherently progressive prosecutor itself as a title, as a term, is a myth. Because at the end of the day, the people, the actors in the criminal system, are there to incarcerate. That’s what they’re there to do. Whenever you hear a prosecutor that’s being praised for being progressive or being good, innately what they have to do is resist. That in some way they are going against what their system is in place to do. So how progressive could someone truly ever be? Their hands are tied, right? Oftentimes, progressiveness has to start with the legislators and what we demand as a society. That’s why the media plate goes hand in hand to participate in the fear mongering, because that’s what allows legislators to do it and justify it based on public outcry about things they don’t know.

So I say this. A prosecutor has a role. They have a role in where we can create change, we should, and where they can decarcerate as much as they can, they should, but it’ll never be the answer because at the end of the day, they’re still in the business. They’re in the business of incarcerating people and they respond to that. Look, we got a progressive prosecutor. He’s not in office two months before even the moderate reforms he wanted to do, he’s rolling back on. We need to hold him accountable. These so-called progressive prosecutors, they run on these tickets and they claim to be for these causes, and they point out all this injustice that the former DA allowed, and then they get into office and they don’t do anything about it. What’s stopping him from dropping those charges that he said he would drop? I want to say that.

Eddie Conway:   Yes, yes, yes. That’s important. We had a similar situation like that here in Baltimore with Freddie Gray. Marilyn Mosby misindicted the three murderers and misindicted the transporters. She indicted the transporters for murder and misindicted the murderers for minor charges. Of course, it was three whites and three Blacks, and all of them walked away, but she did that deliberately right in front of everybody. So yeah, I agree with you. I don’t see that as a solution. You have to put those resources in the community, like you’re saying. Do you have any final words? Any final thoughts for the public?

Olayemi Olurin:      My final words would be to remember that these people that they’re sending to Rikers, they are not these people that are different than you. They’re not these violent criminals. They are regular, everyday New Yorkers, Black and Brown New Yorkers. I say that specifically, not hyperbolically, because that is what the population of Rikers is made up of that they are arresting and sending to jail. Not because they’re guilty, not because they’ve done something incredibly heinous, for no other reason than they don’t have the money to afford bail. In the course of doing that in the last year, it would be a year, in the last year, 15 people have already died in Rikers.

I say this. The same way being a part of a global pandemic was shocking to us. That was a lot just sitting from your home to process the reality that we were in this danger, or that many people would die, or that we need to avoid sickness and illness. Imagine that level of the way we know that the world changed, imagine being locked up. You’ve been locked up prior to the pandemic. There are people that have been locked up in Rikers waiting for their trial before the pandemic even began and they’re still there. Imagine the fear you feel in a cell with 30, 40, 50 people. People are sick. They are dying. You know that multiple people have died. That’s a fear people shouldn’t have to live with. That is a reality people shouldn’t have to live with. It is unjust.

That’s why we’re doing a rally on Feb. 28 at Rikers. We are taking people on buses. We are taking them. Anybody that wants to go, you just sign up. We will be taking you to Rikers on Feb. 28 at noon. There will be elected officials, media present, and we are going to demand the release of people at Rikers now. Thank you.

Eddie Conway:   Okay. Thank you, and thanks for joining me.

Olayemi Olurin:    Thank you for having me, Eddie.

Eddie Conway:     Okay, and thank you for joining this episode of Rattling The Bars.

Eddie Conway

Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.